Free Will and Predestination in Islam

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Free Will and Predestination in Islam
Predestination is a divisive issue that has not just been confined to Christianity, but is a prevalent issue within the Islamic community. Like Christianity the idea of free will has been an issue that is centuries old and possesses a highly divisive nature. To better understand free will and predestination in Islam it is important to first look at the history of the idea and to then review what Islamic theologians, such as al-Ghazali and Al-Hasan, have said on the matter. In studying this subject, it becomes evident that the argument of free will had major political and theological implications that made it become a formative element in Islam.

Despite Islam’s foundation in the 7th century A.D., the idea of predestination was already present in Arabic society. Modern historians have ascertained this through the study of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. In these discovered works, the Arabs speak of their destinies as being completely predestined by the abstract force of Time, or dahr and zaman.1 Time itself was not necessarily a worshipped god, but was rather an abstract force that determined an individuals ajal, which is the length and date persons life will end.2 This idea of Time as an impersonal force formulated the idea fatalism. Fatalism posited that no matter what action a man took, his or her fortune and date of death had already been predetermined according to their ajal.3 This belief was particularly appealing in Arabia due to the unpredictable and harsh lifestyle. The unpredictability of Arabia, whether it was weather or robbers, made it nearly impossible for a man to completely prepare and defend himself from misfortune. Consequently, the view of fatalism allowed Arabs to cultivate an attitude of accepting what the day brought rather than try to prepare against every possibility of hardship. This view came to be known as fatalism4

Fatalism had been ingrained into the minds of Arabs for centuries and to a large degree, survived the transition into Islamic Arabia and been integrated into Islamic theology. Because of this it was fairly shocking when some Muslims began to promote the idea that an individual was capable of controlling his or her destiny through their own choices and actions. The Islamic idea of free will and predestination was centered around the term Qadar, God’s power to determine human action and events. Even though this term seems somewhat counter to the idea of free will, those who promoted free will came to be known as the Qadarites.5

Qadarism arose during the mid 8th century during the oppressive rule of the Umayyad dynasty. At the time there was much contention over the legitimacy of the Umayyads claim to the caliphate. The Umayyads had various arguments to defend their claim, but the one that is most pertinent to free will and predestination was their claim to divine authority.6 One verse from the Quran they often quoted says: “The earth is God’s; he has entrusted it to his khalifa; he who is head in it will not be overcome.” The Umayyad’s appeal to this verse led to a debate over the true meaning of the word “khalifa” or caliph. Overall, the Umayyads main claim to legitimate rule was that of divine authority, which in a large way sparked the debate over God’s determination of events. As William Watt says in The Formative Period of Islamic Though, “it was the theological standpoint of the Umayyads which forced their opponents also to adopt various theological positions.”7

The two key players in the foundation of Qadarism are Ma’ba al-Juhani and Ghaylan ad-Dimashqi. Little is known of al-Juhani. It is unknown how he derived his Qadarite views; however it is certain that he was anti-Umayyad in that he thought that many of their acts were wrong and disagreed with their claim to divine authority.8 The latter influencer, Ghaylan, was very open in his opposition to the Umayyad dynasty and even went as far as to write to...
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